This Is Your Brain on Music - Deepstash
This Is Your Brain on Music

This Is Your Brain on Music

Daniel J. Levitin



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“Headphones also made the music more personal for me; it was suddenly coming from inside my head, not out there in the world."



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Music and Evolution

Music and Evolution

A small minority of scientists argue that music only serves hedonic purposes – a byproduct of language and is only a pastime for us to feel pleasure. That would mean that if you eliminated all music from the world, life would just go on as if nothing happened.

The majority side of scientists believes that music played a key role in our evolution and has paved the way for our human ancestors to develop speech.

Music and speaking are quite similar, so it’s possible that by practicing singing and making sounds, our ancestors could have developed the skills needed to later articulate words.


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Music Is All About Expectations

Music Is All About Expectations

How much you like a song depends mostly on how well you can predict what comes next. Great musicians play with your brain and expectations in the way that they get you to expect something, and then surprise you, before taking you back to comfortable terrain.

A great song surprises you, but not too much. It balances the familiar with the unknown and therefore creates the perfect mix of comfort and excitement.


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Each Song You Hear Leaves An Imprint In Your Brain

Each Song You Hear Leaves An Imprint In Your Brain

While many areas of the brain light up simultaneously during music, such as your subcortical structures, auditory cortices, the hippocampus, and others, something unique happens the very first time you hear any song: a certain set of neurons fires together, and a unique, abstract, generalized imprint is created.

This can then be called upon any future time you hear this song or a part of it. That’s why when studies looked at the brain waves of people when they listened to songs and compared them to when they were just imagining the song in their head, the patterns were indistinguishable.


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Musical Activity Is Widely Distributed Across The Brain

Musical Activity Is Widely Distributed Across The Brain

Neuroanatomically, music is being processed in parallel by many different regions.

  • If we listen to Bach, our hair cells in the cochlea parse the incoming sound into its different frequency bands.
  • Then, electrical signals are sent to the primary auditory cortex to inform it about which frequencies are present in the signal.
  • Simultaneously, regions in the temporal lobe, including the superior temporal sulcus and the superior temporal gyrus, assist in distinguishing the different timbres.
  • We can then label some of those timbres by retrieving the memories of similar sounds that we’ve heard before, using the hippocampus.


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How We Store Musical Memories In Our Brain

How We Store Musical Memories In Our Brain

There are 2competing theories.

  • The constructivist theory argues that the brain stores relational information about objects and ideas, rather than explicit information about them. Thus, upon retrieval, we have to construct a memory representation out of these relations (e.g. pitch relations of a melody).
  • The competing theory is known as the record-keeping theory - most of our experiences are preserved accurately and with near-perfect fidelity.

Ample evidence exists for both, which eventually led researchers to develop a new theory that is capable of incorporating both of its predecessors.


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“The common neural mechanisms that underlie perception of music and memory for music help to explain how it is that songs get stuck in our heads. Scientists call these ear worms, from the German Ohrwurm, or simply the stuck song syndrome.”



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“Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.”



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“For the artist, the goal of the painting or musical composition is not to convey literal truth, but an aspect of a universal truth that if successful, will continue to move and to touch people even as contexts, societies and cultures change. For the scientist, the goal of a theory is to convey "truth for now"--to replace an old truth, while accepting that someday this theory, too, will ve replaced by a new "truth," because that is the way science advances.”



745 reads

Mirror Neurons

Mirror Neurons

Our brains have mirror neurons, which are neurons that fire both when performing an action and when observing someone else performing that action.

Scientists have tested this as a theory and proved that, for example, when people listened to or watched someone eat an apple, their own neurons in the mouth movement area were activated. This is the brain’s way to train and prepare the organism to make movements that it has not made before.


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